From the Associated Press:
RANDOLPH, Vt. (AP) — Children’s librarian Judith Flint was getting ready for the monthly book discussion group for 8- and 9-year-olds on “Love That Dog” when police showed up.
They weren’t kidding around: Five state police detectives wanted to seize Kimball Public Library’s public access computers as they frantically searched for a 12-year-old girl, acting on a tip that she sometimes used the terminals.
Flint demanded a search warrant, touching off a confrontation that pitted the privacy rights of library patrons against the rights of police on official business.
“It’s one of the most difficult situations a library can face,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of intellectual freedom issues for the American Library Association.
Investigators did obtain a warrant about eight hours later, but the June 26 standoff in the 105-year-old, red brick library on Main Street frustrated police and had fellow librarians cheering Flint.
“What I observed when I came in were a bunch of very tall men encircling a very small woman,” said the library’s director, Amy Grasmick, who held fast to the need for a warrant after coming to the rescue of the 4-foot-10 Flint.
Library records and patron privacy have been hot topics since the passage of the U.S. Patriot Act after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Library advocates have accused the government of using the anti-terrorism law to find out — without proper judicial oversight or after-the-fact reviews — what people research in libraries.
But the investigation of Brooke Bennett’s disappearance wasn’t a Patriot Act case.
“We had to balance out the fact that we had information that we thought was true that Brooke Bennett used those computers to communicate on her MySpace account,” said Col. James Baker, director of the Vermont State Police. “We had to balance that out with protecting the civil liberties of everybody else, and this was not an easy decision to make.”
Brooke, from Braintree, vanished the day before the June 26 confrontation in the children’s section of the tiny library. Investigators went to the library chasing a lead that she had used the computers there to arrange a rendezvous.
The 12-year-old was found a week later, murdered and buried in a shallow grave near her uncle’s home. The uncle has been charged with murder, and the allegation about public computers was all just a ruse by him to send police on a wild goose chase.
The case still raises important questions about the privacy of information stored on public computers, however. It has also not yet been explained why it took police eight hours to get a warrant in a missing child case, nor has anyone made a legitimate argument for why the computers should have been just handed over to police without a warrant. It still appears that police thought they could just bully the librarians into handing over the computers.